Greater transport choice can help revive Christchurch

Brendon Harre
Jun 27, 2018 · 20 min read
Central Planning by Tony de Lautour, a Christchurch artist. Painted in 2013

Greater Christchurch has a donut problem. Rapid growth on the outside. Slower growth in the middle.

Rebuilding Christchurch’s CBD is still work in progress, depicted here is Rauora Park in the Eastern Frame of the city centre where nearly one thousand residences are planned to be built as part of a Crown/Fletchers partnership arrangement -the first will be completed by the end of the year. My proposed BRT scheme would use Manchester St which is on the far right hand side of the photo.

The intent of this paper is;

  • To illustrate the model of urban development being developed in New Zealand, primarily in Auckland and demonstrate how this model could be applied to other urban areas -such as Greater Christchurch
  • To show how a congestion free rapid transit network can be provided for Greater Christchurch
  • To discuss how housing intensification can respond to the the rapid transit network and provide affordable housing
  • To help revive Christchurch’s CBD
  • To demonstrate how Christchurch can meet its climate change commitments
  • To describe how new innovative funding and urbanisation tools can help implement these important changes
  • To encourage Canterbury to take advantage of the latest thinking on urban development coming from central government in Wellington

Christchurch has a donut problem, the growth of the inner parts of the city does not match the growth in the wider region.

It has been obvious for some time that a number of mistakes were made in the rebuild of the central business district. These include; inadequate and poor sequencing of housing intensification, too much emphasis on big corporate rather than fine-grain buildings and a missed opportunity to strategically address Christchurch’s lack of rapid transit.

Three years ago I wrote about these issues in a case study of the $1billion Fletcher and Crown CBD residential development. The situation in the central business district has improved, but only by slow increments. For instance some tens not hundreds of residential dwellings will be completed in the Eastern Frame by the end of the year.

A local business woman recently, out of desperation, made a series of tweets showing pictures of how few people are walking through the Christchurch CBD seven years after the start of the rebuild, following the city wrecking earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

Disappointedly the latest Lonely Planet travel guide did not rate Christchurch worthy of a mention. Christchurch is in the dangerous period of having exhausted its post-earthquakes goodwill but it has not yet renewed the city.

My analysis of the donut problem indicates it will be exacerbated by autocentric growth concentrated on the periphery of the metropolitan area creating more congestion in the central parts of Christchurch.

This paper will show increasing demand for transport in the form of private vehicle use will increasingly block arterial roads in the inner suburbs of Christchurch.

This autocentric growth can be seen in the following points;

  • Christchurch residents spend on average 221 hours in private motor vehicles, versus just 10 hours on public transport. Compared to Aucklanders spending 187 hours driving and 25 hours on public transport and Wellingtonians spending 134 hours and 34 hours respectively.
  • Christchurch residents only spend a further 10 hours travelling by bike each year, and 34 hours are taken up by journeys on foot.
  • In Christchurch just 35 percent of people used public transport -buses, trains or ferries -in the past year, compared to 60 per cent in Auckland, 77 per cent in Wellington and 40 per cent nationally.
  • Commuters could make significant savings if they switched from car to bus. $7450 from Rangiora and $6750 from Rolleston. Analysis by Christchurch’s Press, published in Stuff.
  • Yet buses are 276 hours slower than cars from Rangiora and 332 hours from Rolleston when travelling at peak times over the course of a year.
  • Canterbury and West Coast AA chairman Roy Hughes does not expect an exodus of drivers onto public transport in the near future. “At least 80 percent of members tell us that most of the time buses and bicycles are not an attractive or usable alternative for them.” Yet the AA does acknowledge that public transport could become more attractive if services were upgraded.
Christchurch’s northern arterial motorway is being built now. It will connect to Cranford street.
  • Greater Christchurch’s donut pattern of growth is creating conflict between the outside parts of the ‘donut’ which is benefiting from growth versus the inside parts that is experiencing the costs -in the form of congestion.
  • Christchurch Central MP Duncan Webb in response to the expected 30% increase in traffic which will result from the new Northern arterial motorway, has publicly said inner city suburbs and rates money (property tax) were being sacrificed for the needs of commuters. That previous transport strategies had already encouraged commuter towns at the expense of growth and development within Christchurch. Duncan Webb said the new plan was too “car-centric”, would damage communities by creating barriers, harm businesses and reduce the amenity of the neighbourhoods. “There are real risks that those communities will be damaged.”

The first step in the analysis is to acknowledge the growing demand being experienced in New Zealand’s urban areas.

Only the West Coast and Southland have slow ‘Detroit-like’ stagnant growth rates

Population in most New Zealand towns and cities is growing quickly, leading to increasing demands for urban spaces -road space, car parking space, residential spaces, commercial spaces…. (A full description of spatial economics discussing how the scarce resource of urban space is allocated can be read here).

New Zealand’s three biggest cities since 2013 have grown at the following rates;

  • Wellington 1.2%
  • Christchurch 2.1%
  • Auckland 2.6%

This population growth means New Zealand’s biggest cities are not stagnant legacy cities such as Detroit.

Supply and demand curves for housing.

Treasury call legacy cities type 1, expansive cities type 2 and expensive cities type 3. Treasury’s analysis comes from the work of Glaeser and Gyourko, in papers like The Economic Implications of Housing Supply

Because of inelastic supply the increasing demand is being translated to increasing house prices rather than increasing house building. This makes New Zealand cities the expensive type where house prices have increased more than quantity supplied, as opposed to the alternative, being the expansive city type.

Increasing demand for road space translates into more congested roads, especially in the case of inner suburb arterial roads as they are of fixed size. Ideally the increased demand for road space would lead to a transition to more spatially efficient transport modes.

For both expansive and expensive cities, unlike legacy cities, there is growing economic activity that some sort of value capture mechanism could be used to fund new infrastructure projects.

Christchurch although considered internationally an expensive city, in the New Zealand context it has been the most responsive city to demand pressures. First from the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, then from an annual 2.1% increase in population since 2013 (about 10,000 extra people/year, 8,000 additional motor vehicles and 4,000 constructed houses). On a per capita basis Canterbury has the highest regional house building rate -mainly due to the fast build rate in Christchurch’s neighbouring districts of Selwyn and Waimakariri, especially around satellite towns such as Rolleston and Rangiora. House prices in Canterbury for several years now have stabilised and rents have dropped back.

Expansive cities can expand outwards or upwards or a combination of both. US cities tend to expand outwards, in Europe the growth is more balanced and in Asia growth tends to be more upwards.

I believe in Christchurch’s case its housing supply responsiveness could be further improved by providing competitive housing intensification supply in urban growth corridors, that have a framework of new rapid transit services and improved cycle/walkways, that connect housing intensification areas to places of economic activity (commercial areas) and importance (educational and health institutions etc).

In other words, I believe Christchurch could be an expansive city -both outwards and upwards. Its donut could be filled ‘upwards’ with affordable housing along urban growth corridors.

Unfortunately, to date ,where Christchurch has intensified the quality has mostly been very poor sausage flat infilling. The CBD residential rebuild as I already described has not gone well.

New transport provision for Greater Christchurch has mainly been in the form of motorway transport infrastructure that will be completed over the next few years. The motorways heading towards the centre of city are in red in the below map. They are either completed or in the process of being completed.

Red =Motorways, Green =Railway tracks, blue =proposed BRT route, Yellow circle =area likely to experience more congestion

These motorway extensions will act as funnels that combined with the approximately 8,000 additional cars per year (from an annual increase in pop of 10,000), will increase congestion in the centrally located arterial roads of Christchurch, as this existing road network space is fixed in quantity.

The streets within the yellow circle will significantly increase in congestion if no remedy is provided.

Greater Christchurch needs to offer more spatially efficient transport options to cope with this increased traffic and congestion caused by space demanding private automobiles.

Currently there is a government promise for passenger rail to be reinstated for the western line from Rolleston to Addington.

The region needs to be more ambitious to effectively address increasing transport and housing demands.

Is a congestion free rapid transit network for Greater Christchurch.

The blue line is my proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor. Note: the red and orange roads are showing the slower traffic during the evening rush hour

This analysis clearly shows that growing demand for both transport and housing needs to be accommodated by the creation of urban growth corridors around a network of rapid transit services.

A commuter train service needs to be reinstated not only from the south west satellite town of Rolleston to Addington train station but extended further towards the CBD to a new station on Moorhouse Avenue.

A bus rapid transit scheme is needed, so a single-use bus right-of-way is constructed from the southern motorway/Brougham street to the northern motorway exit on Cranford street, on a route (blue line) parallel to the main arterial roads.

The combined bus and light rail underground station at the Westlake Centre, Seattle, USA, could be an example for an underground BRT station at Moorhouse Ave.

The BRT road would need to tunnel underneath or bridge over top of the proposed Moorhouse Ave train station. This would make Moorhouse Ave station a combined train and BRT transit hub.

This transit hub would be the key to the success of the congestion free network for Christchurch. It would be the first connection point between one rapid transit service and another. It could be called the Moorhouse Exchange or MX for short. The area around the Exchange could be called the MX District.

An example of a elevated bus rapid transit station for a proposed Pakistan BRT scheme

Commuter train services would also need to be reinstated on the existing northern rail line from the northern satellite towns of Rangiora and Kaiapoi to the Moorhouse Exchange.

These projects would create the start of a congestion free network for Greater Christchurch. It would be Christchurch’s equivalent to Auckland’s Britomart and Northern Busway infrastructures.

Addington train station area: Blue -new track needed, yellow -land acquisition needed, Red -land owned and managed by Ngai Tahu

This would require the upgrade of the main rail junction. Double tracking would also be required -especially to the north.

The BRT route would need to tunnel under or bridge over top of both Moorhouse Ave and the train tracks to connect Manchester Street with Buchan Street.

A Moorhouse Ave train station needs to be built above of below a BRT tunnel station to make a combined transit hub -the Moorhouse Exchange, such that travellers can simply descend/ascend on escalators between the two services.

Grey square is the combined Moorhouse train and BRT transit hub. Blue line is the BRT corridor going through Christchurch’s CBD

Being able to transfer onto a steady stream of north/south buses at the Moorhouse Exchange would solve the problem of the train tracks not going to the centre of Christchurch.

Probably in the first stage of the BRT scheme the bus priority lane would end where Manchester Road finishes at Edgeware Road and the buses would then cross over to the general traffic arterial road of Cranford street.

It is possible in the future the northern end of the BRT road could acquire four areas of residential houses (in blue). The BRT road could then connect seamlessly with the northern arterial motorway by an overbridge or underpass for the the northern flowing bus lane and a bus only slip lane for the south flowing bus lane.

Quasi public/private entities could be induced to provide these public transport and housing infrastructures. This is the latest thinking coming from Minister for Housing, Transport and Urban Development Phil Twyford who has made several public announcements indicating the government is actively seeking private sector involvement to partner up with for this sort urban growth model.

Most recently on the 23rd of June, in an interview Phil Twyford explained the government was having discussions with investors in this space. There has been a positive response from the media from this announcement, with some writing this initiative could also be a launchpad for new construction competitors and lower build prices.

It is my contention this sort of transport infrastructure could be funded by a targeted rate on land values of private property in the urban growth corridors within walking distance of the rapid transit lines. This could pay a bond (a loan) that repays the capital costs of the transit system. As well a small and tightly configured sales or fuel tax could help fund the ongoing operating costs, if any, of the BRT and commuter rail schemes.

My paper on ‘Why tax house building in a housing crisis’ discusses good and bad ways of taxing houses, so expands on these issues. Economist Eric Crampton succinctly details how these infrastructure financing tools could help get Auckland’s median house value to median incomes ratio own to five or less here.

Patrick Reynolds who is a member of Greater Auckland blog, which has been instrumental in advocating for Auckland’s rapid transit network was interviewed by Radio NZ to discuss the regional fuel tax and the benefits of providing more transport choice for Auckland. Canterbury can learn a lot from how Auckland is addressing its urban performance issues. Patrick explains in a paper steady incremental change to urbanisation in Auckland over the last ten years, in particular in transport, proved to be revolutionary over time.

Clearly the government is most interested in solving the urbanisation issues of Auckland, where many of the problems, in particular the housing crisis are the most acute. But Greater Christchurch is growing by about 10,000 people a year, it is the second fastest growing urban area in the country. The region should be making a case to use similar thinking to address its urban performance needs.

With this latest thinking on creating a public and private urban performance framework I can see the commercial arm of the South Island/Canterbury’s powerful iwi -Ngai Tahu being an important participant. It has much of the capital and commercial expertise needed to assist in providing these transport and housing projects. Ngai Tahu have the long-term perspective, the mana and desire to provide leadership in their region that is needed to make a success of such a project.

Ngai Tahu Property own a large block of land next to Christchurch’s main railway junction -which were Addington rail yards -so it would be a major beneficiary to commuter rail restarting. Ngai Tahu Property has expertise at providing large master planned intensification schemes, gained from being a Hobsonville housing provider in partnership with the NZ SuperFund. The SuperFund have offered in partnership with a Canadian infrastructure building company to provide and run Auckland’s proposed light rail service.

“Tokyo is much more human-scale and “chill” than the hyper-dense neon metropolis I’d always imagined” according to tweet by @devonzuegel
Tokyo is not the neon-lit ultra high-density streetscapes of people’s imagination -this is what most of Tokyo looks like. NB picture taken from train

This commercial transport approach has similarities to how the Japanese/Tokyo urban development model works. I wrote about this model here and here. It is also similar to Phoenix’s light rail network that became operational in 2008 -funded by a small regional sales tax, which I discussed in my paper -‘Why tax housing in a housing crisis’. I think this approach of engaging with the private sector is consistent with the government’s urbanisation reform agenda. A May 2018 video interview of Minister Phil Twyford with Auckland property investors, certainly shows a lot of desire for private sector involvement to help solve New Zealand’s urbanisation problems.

In the negotiations with a transport providing entity (or entities), the size of the capital and operating expenditure subsidy and tax on the resident population would not be the only commercially relevant issues to be negotiated over.

Also of commercial interest to the transit providing entity would be a whole range of commitments that would allow the increase in demand for housing to be supplied by more housing along the rapid transit corridors. For instance, relaxation on intensification zoning rules, removing car parking minimum restrictions, implementing a road congestion charge by a particular date and providing institutional support for master planned blocks.

These policy changes would increase the number of residents living near the rapid transit network, so would increase the fare revenue for the transit providing entity. These planning related policies could be negotiated and agreed as part a contract -with penalty payments should these policy commitments be reneged upon or reversed.

Also any land holdings owned by the rapid transit providing entity that is adjacent to the rapid transit service could be given liberal zoning permissions. This would encourage the transit providing entity to build housing and commercial spaces such that they price ‘in’ residential and business activity. In some overseas transit schemes this sort of property development is a significant source of funding, with the transit providing entity also being a major institutional property manager.

A quasi public/private entity is needed because it enables the project to be financed off the books of both local and central government. It avoids local government debt restrictions and central government fiscal constraints. Local Councils in New Zealand can only borrow at 2.5 times their revenue whilst a quasi public/private entity, which the bond market considers as separate to local authorities can borrow at well over 5 times the targeted revenue source.

This sort of entity would have a commercial mindset to grow its customer/passenger base from the outset, which would hopefully enable it to quickly achieve a stable economies of scale sweetspot. Note rapid transit systems have high initial capital costs but low ongoing running costs if passenger numbers are high.

If Greater Christchurch had a congestion free network configured as proposed, not only would it encourage greater intensification, it would enable transit oriented developments (TOD) in greenfield areas. Any new greenfield development would be able to connect to either the commuter rail system or the BRT network, so transit oriented housing developments could become the norm for Greater Christchurch.

Important environmental areas, such as the aquifer recharge land to the west of the airport and areas that are unsuitable for building (perhaps due to land being of higher earthquake risk, such as former marshlands to the north east of Christchurch) would need to be identified and avoided by placing them in a rural zones between the corridors. This aspect of the urban growth corridor plan has similarities to Copenhagen’s -finger plan.

The below orange circles is the roughly drawn areas where transit oriented growth corridors could branch out into.

Yellow circles is the roughly drawn areas where transit oriented growth corridors could branch out into, red is motorways, green is commuter rail and blue is the BRT corridor. On the original map blue areas are zoned urban, red is zoned rural

The upfront capital costs of electric buses are higher than diesel buses but lifetime costs are lower. In the near future as battery costs reduce, capital costs will also become less.

The transition to a electric bus fleet in Christchurch has begun with the purchase of three electric buses.

The faster the region transitions to electric powered transport options the better for the environment. Especially considering the commitments New Zealand has made to address climate change.

Historically increased bus use has caused pollution -not just diesel pollution but also noise pollution. Fixing these two issues by using electric buses will increase the amenity value of land immediately adjacent to BRT roads. A commitment to run all BRT services by electric buses would be another factor in reducing opposition to rapid transit corridors.

The busways will be highly desirable corridors from a landowners perspective.There will be a frequent stream of quiet, non-polluting buses that enable residents to bypass log-jammed arterial roads. Residents will be able to quickly access destinations on the rapid transit network.

Information from

Trams facilitated the early development of the suburban fringe of not just Christchurch, as depicted in the above map, but many towns and cities in New Zealand. For example in Wellington the suburb of Newtown was first developed by tram. Many early tramways were established by private companies linked to land-development companies. The strategic mistake these early tramway companies made was not securing single-use right of ways for their tram routes.

In Christchurch the Cathedral Square was the central hub of this tram network. Unfortunately, because the trams were in traffic with private motor vehicles they were slower than cars and the service could not compete. Tram services in the city stopped in 1954. In the following decades businesses in the Square began to falter -cinemas for instance all moved out to suburban malls.

Nationally, public transport use decreased over the late 20th century, but regionally there were significant differences. Wellington with its dormitory suburbs linked to the city by rail, has the highest public transport use per capita of any city or urban area in New Zealand. In 2013, 17% of Greater Wellington residents used public transport to travel to work, while only 8% of Aucklanders did, and only 3% of people in Canterbury.

If Canterbury could increase its public transport use up to at least Auckland levels, congestion and conflict on the roads would significantly reduce. Christchurch roads could become less congested than even the quiet periods during the school holidays.

Since 2008 Aucklanders showed how quickly public transport use could increase if buses were made faster. Thanks to the $290 million Northern Busway, with special bus lanes that sped up the journey. Since then patronage on this rapid transit service has increased much faster than general public transport patronage. By 2017 more people travelled to Auckland’s CBD by public transport than they do by car.

Auckland’s congestion free rapid transit network is rapidly maturing into a grid shape covering most of the city. The network provides transport services to multiple nodes not just the CBD. No doubt over time this network will lead to major changes in housing and transport use.

If Canterbury increased its public transport use rate to Auckland levels by constructing a rapid transit network i.e. an increase from 3% to 8% of residents, that would be an additional 25,000 regular public transport users.

A long term goal might be to increase public transport and active transport mode choices to Wellington levels (17% of work journeys), which would mean 70,000 Greater Christchurch residents would switch to alternative transport solutions.

If cycling was perceived as safe -then the numbers of cyclists would increase rapidly -we know this from the history of Christchurch and from international experience.

Providing alternative transport options will help Christchurch transition back to cycling being a major transport mode by reducing the amount of traffic and perceived danger of the roads.

Cities like Copenhagen provide a model of how to bring cycling back into the urban environment.

An example of how rapid transit and cycling can complement each other could be connecting Addington train station to Christchurch Public Hospital with new cycling infrastructure.

Addington train station is close to a fast growing commercial area -some big law firms for instance moved out to Addington following the earthquakes.

The cycling route from a new Addington train station would ideally go underneath the Blenheim road overbridge, under Deans Ave, through South Hagley Park and to Christchurch Hospital

Addington train station is also only 1.7km from Christchurch Public Hospital and a cycle route could be constructed to avoid vehicle traffic by going through South Hagley Park.

Christchurch’s emergency department is one of the busiest in Australasia -it is the sole ED for a population catchment of over 500,000 people.

Car parking at the hospital is a massive problem due to the number of employees, patients and visiting family members. Accessible public transport and safer cycling infrastructure would ease this problem significantly. This would leave more car parking for people in emergency situations who really need it.

Ideally bike tunnels underneath Deans and Riccarton Avenues would be constructed that connect the cycle paths to secure cycle parks at both destinations. This would give cyclists their own right of way, seperate to motor vehicle traffic directly from train station to hospital.

Here is some information on how complementary bike and train services are.

And how to build safe and desirable bike tunnels.

There is something rather strange and short sighted about how kiwi parents fight over car parking spaces near schools so they can personally drop off and pick up their children. This situation has become so congested and chaotic it is being reported on in the media.

Kiwi children are going to school to learn how to be become independent adults. Yet the wider built environment is enforcing an extended period of dependence. Kiwi parents are putting a large amount of effort individually to keep their children safe but are not making a collective effort to provide a comprehensive solution.

As a society New Zealand can choose for its children to be strong and independent, who can safely travel about their community by their own efforts or overweight children who are dependent on parents driving them everywhere.

The NZ Geographic published a good article by a young woman -Rebekah White that argued that New Zealand needs more ‘third places’ -being public places in our urban environment where people make contact with each other, outside of work or home. Rebekah argues these sort of places build community which reduces stress, anxiety and depression. She believes New Zealand has an opportunity;

As we rapidly expand our cities, as we solve our housing crises, we have the chance to correct this. We could shift away from the prioritisation of cars as a method of transport, and make our streets places for strolls and encounters.

New Zealand’s internationally high youth suicide rate indicates greater efforts need to be made to improve protective and decrease risk factors. An improved urban environment could be an important protective factor.

Light rail

Possible routes depicted in brown.

Once a congestion free network is established there may be demand to connect other places of importance. In particular light rail could be provided between the CBD, Canterbury University, Teachers College and the Airport.

Light rail between the CBD and University I didn’t considered a good first step for a rapid transit network because its capital costs will be much higher. My proposed commuter trains and BRT route uses existing rail tracks and roads for the most part -so has lower land acquisition and capital costs. Even more important, my proposed BRT and commuter train network provides the best spatially efficient transport vent for the predicted motorway induced arterial road congestion that inner suburb Christchurch will experience.

Regional rail

60km north of Christchurch is the wine growing region of Waipara Valley. A major boost to this regional economy would be having a fast, frequent and comfortable passenger train connection to Christchurch.

This would encourage more tourists and Christchurch residents to take day trips or short holiday breaks to the region.

Weka Pass steam train provides a tourist return journey between Waipara and Waikari

A comprehensive regional development plan for the valley could be created, involving cycleways and/or horse trekking tracks connecting the Waipara train station to wineries, accommodation and other establishments.

Waipara grows the biggest truffles in the country. The truffle growing industry in New Zealand is a fraction of the size of Australia’s due to a lack of capital. A comprehensive development plan for the region could help grow this local industry.

There could be farmers markets and new tourist attractions, to complement existing attractions such as the Weka Pass steam trains. Amberley the largest town at the southern end of the valley could be the service town. It could get an Intermediate and Secondary School. Maybe a hospitality or viticulture trade training establishment.

Before Sumner beach in Christchurch was better connected for motor vehicles in 1937, by the construction of the McCormick’s Bay road causeway, the suburb was beyond the commuting range for daily workers, but a tram was profitable for day trip excursions to the beach from 1888. For a period the Sumner tram were so popular, overcrowding, safety and accidents were the major concern. Waipara Valley in North Canterbury is probably in a similar geographic position now and the same approach of promoting short excursion breaks for recreational purposes to local Christchurch residents and foreign tourists would also likely be successful.

An application could be made to the Provincial Growth Fund to assist in providing some of the needed infrastructure.

Declaration of interest:

I am not part of the Ngai Tahu iwi and have had no contact with them. My speculation of their possible interest in providing rapid transit infrastructure and master planned housing solutions in Canterbury is purely based on a commercial assessment of their interests and capabilities.

I live in the North Canterbury town of Amberley and would benefit from regional rail being extended to Waipara.

New Zealand needs an urbanisation project

A collection of essays about cities, housing, land, the…

New Zealand needs an urbanisation project

A collection of essays about cities, housing, land, the built environment and transport which collectively make the case for New Zealand to implement a wide ranging urbanisation project

Brendon Harre

Written by

Trying to optimise amenity and affordability values for urban areas

New Zealand needs an urbanisation project

A collection of essays about cities, housing, land, the built environment and transport which collectively make the case for New Zealand to implement a wide ranging urbanisation project